By PETER CATON
MURWILLUMBAH District Hospital is so short of doctors on weekends that they have been flown in from as far as Alice Springs and Townsville.
The flying locums, who wing in on a Friday night and out on Sunday night, are likely to remain the backstop of the hospital's emergency services for at least another six months.
According to the North Coast Area Health Service the problem has arisen because local doctors are too busy with their own practices to continue their traditional role as visiting medical officers.
Patients are alarmed.
One Murwillumbah man said he recently waited six-and-a-half hours in the emergency department before being seen by a locum from Alice Springs.
"You never want to get sick in Murwillumbah on a weekend because there are no local doctors," said the regular patient who declined to be named for fear of upsetting hospital staff including the flown-in doctors.
North Coast Area Health Service chief executive officer Chris Crawford confirmed career medical officers were being used. While they are trained doctors they are generally cheaper to employ than GPs.
Some had come from as far afield as Alice Springs and Townsville, he said.
"The GP's have wound back their involvement because their practices are getting busier," Mr Crawford said. "Because of that we are moving to career medical officers supporting the emergency department."
Mr Crawford said because other hospitals were doing the same the demand for career medical officers had become quite competitive.
He added that the area health service would bring them in from so far away simply "shows the lengths we will go to to find them".
"They have even come in from New Zealand, not for Murwillumbah so far but for other parts of the area," he said.
Mr Crawford said an announcement was likely next week on the transition of Murwillumbah's emergency department to one permanently staffed by career medical officers but it would probably take six months to find the personnel.
The lobby group for local doctors has confirmed GP's are simply too busy to work in the hospital.
Murwillumbah-based chief executive officer for the Tweed Valley Division of General Practice, Gary Southey said Murwillumbah was classified as a "district of workplace shortage" for GP's.
"Hospital work impacts on services they can offer at their practices," he said.
"It's just commensurate with an aging population and the demands being placed on general practice."